This is part 2 of my post on using singing, toning, chanting, and other ecstatic techniques for aspecting and trance possession in ritual. You’re really going to want to read Part 1, and you’ll also likely want to read this post on the theology/function of aspecting and trance possession.
Toning and Singing
Toning is one of the best ways to get people singing. It’s very safe. And, there are instruments you can use to support and cradle the sound. It’s hard to get a big/enveloping sound with only 3 people in a small group. It’s even hard with 10, unless you’re all really committed to singing and making sound. You can use a singing bowl or a Shruti box or something else that makes a droning/toning sound and sing along with that.
There are two major types of chanting/breathwork–there’s chanting that slows your breathing (like toning) and there’s chanting that speeds up your breathing. One slows your heartbeat, one speeds it up. They do different things to your brainwaves too; the science on that is just a bit beyond my pay grade, but try it some time, you’ll feel the difference.
The type of chanting you use depends on what you want to happen. With trance possession in the style of Vodou, you’re looking at heavy drumming, dancing, and chanting in a faster way that makes your breathing staccato. Whereas if you have seen a roomful of Tibetan monks chanting steadily and slowly, that affects your consciousness differently.
Both are effective chanting techniques, but the question is, effective at what?
Toning and slower chants (like the Tibetan monks, or just singing OM) is an easier place to start. It’s safer, and it will build up people’s strength in their voices and their confidence.
I have a few of songs that I sing along to when I drive (here’s my start-up song) so I’m basically singing, toning, and harmonizing long drones for as long as I can sustain my breath. Here are all the reasons I do this:
- Personal spiritual practice
- Keeping my voice warmed up
- Continually build my capacity to hold more air and control that air so I can sing for longer without needing to take a breath
I can hold a note for 20 seconds with no problem. Sometimes 30 or more if my voice is really in shape. That’s important for the way breathing shifts your body and your heart rate and your brainwaves; you’re using toning as a form of breathwork, and you’re using it to shift your consciousness in a very particular way, so the more control you have over when you take a breath will impact the kind of spiritual work you can do.
It’s also important as a facilitator. If you want to build your capacity to lead chants; you need to be able to control where you breathe. One of the biggest problems facilitators run into when leading a chant is that, when they take a breath, the group stops singing. When I chant with a group, I don’t breathe in the places you’d expect so that the chant just keeps going. I breathe when the group is singing strongly, not in the “expected” breathing spaces between the lines.
Eventually, you might want to try something with more staccato breathing, and bring in drumming. It’s easier to do more complicated chants once your group is feeling stronger about singing and they’re used to it, and when there’s more safety/intimacy as a group.
These could be chants with more words, and chants that are intended to speed up as you go along. More words tends to force breathing more quickly, particularly if you are also moving or dancing, or even just rocking back and forth more and more quickly.
With larger groups, I tend to caution people away from using canned music (ie, playing a CD or MP3) but with a small group, it might work well if you use it a lot and are used to it. Really depends on the song. Pre-recorded music doesn’t allow for the energy to shift in the moment, however, it can be a place to start to help get people more comfortable.
For more physical trancework, think dancing to techno or heavy drumming, bellydance, or firespinning, and singing along with that. The movement plus the chanting will put you into a different kind of altered state than the calmer toning/droning.
Here’s a video that shows two different chants. The first is a slower chant used to hold space while we journeyed to the Sacred Well one at a time. The second chant is faster and speeds up leading to an energy peak. The audio’s not the best but you can at least see the progression.
If you’re trying to effect a trance possession of one ritualist, then it becomes almost the opposite of what I do when I lead a chant. When I lead a chant for a group ritual, I’m anchoring the chant and working to get the group more comfortable, helping them sing it until it “takes off” on its own and then I guide it, shape it.
With a trance possession, the group encircles the Vessel, and works to get the Vessel possessed by shaping the energy, building it higher. There can still be a facilitator guiding the speed/energy, but the Vessel is giving over to the group energy and letting that shape the experience. The group is using their own energy to help the Vessel “get there.” So the Vessel may be dancing, but the group is singing, dancing, moving as well to help build that energy and help the Vessel get possessed/draw down. It’s a collaborative effort.
Here are some videos that show chanting and drumming used by a very skilled ritual/musical group. This group has practiced together for quite some time and they have a very specific tradition, though I’m unfamiliar with it or its roots. You can see how the group works to use music to build up the energy focusing on the person who is doing the trance dancing, and how they speed up/get more into it as they give over to the music. (There are a lot of videos of this group on the channel, but I’ll just post a few here)
You can get a sense of the kind of vulnerability of the vessel, which is why I so frequently emphasize that the sense of safety is crucial to practices like this in ritual. I’m able to get large groups there because there’s a sort of anonymity in a group larger than 50.
In a group smaller than 10, you need to trust each and every person in that group to be able to go into the kind of deep trance state for invocation/aspecting/trance possession. In our culture, we’re so often wired to laugh at the person who sings and dances if it’s not performance quality, and in ritual work like this, your ability to look “good” dancing isn’t what’s required. It isn’t even required to be a good singer, though being able to stay on the melody or harmonize does help. It’s required that you do it, that you give yourself over to it, that you sing and move your body and go into the rhythm.
It’s required that you participate, that you engage, that you are present, that you are bringing your energy through your voice and body. If you sing quietly or limit yourself to small, tight movements, because you’re nervous that you’ll be judged by the group, because you’re worried someone’s going to see your fat jiggling or any other perceived physical flaw, you won’t be able to go into the depths.
Thus–using these ecstatic techniques goes far beyond just singing and toning during ritual work. All of this weaves together.
Working This Into Group Practice
What I’d suggest more than anything if you want to weave ecstatic techniques, particularly singing, is teaching the techniques themselves and why you are using them. Teach your group the singing and chanting techniques. Encourage them to practice singing as a personal spiritual practice so that they get more comfortable singing alone and as a group together.
Pro tip: I warm my voice up for about an hour before leading a workshop or ritual. I don’t wake up in the morning with a ready-to-go voice, I need to work out the gravelly sound and warm up the muscles. Your voice is a muscle, and you’re more likely to be able to sing and stay on key if you 1. warm up your voice muscles by singing and 2. regularly sing the chants you’ll be singing in ritual.
I wish every ritual participant bothered to warm their voices up before a ritual so that they are ready to jump in and participate!
I learned the hard way that I have to keep my voice warmed up. I had been singing and leading chants in rituals for a couple of years, and then I ran a weekend-long class on Raising Energy in Ritual. The morning the class started, I led the group with the first chant I’d chosen. I’d sung it so many times I was surprised to hear my voice straining to reach some of the notes, and my voice sounding a little wavery, not strong at all. I realized that I hadn’t been singing in weeks. Your voice is a muscle and you lose muscle tone fast. And let’s face it, many of us wake up and cough, there’s phlegm, our voice is deeper and maybe a little hoarse. Not the most pleasant topic, but it’s important if you’re looking to sing in ritual.
It can take me a half hour to an hour to be ready to hit the notes and sustain them for group chanting, particularly if there are difficult acoustics (like I’m chanting in an open field with no tree cover or next to a soccer game). This is part of your work as a ritualist, as a leader, as a professional. Leading rituals is work, and singing in ritual takes dedication and practice just as it does for a professional musician.
Experimenting With Techniques
I also strongly suggest being willing to experiment. You might start out with the toning/droning kind of singing, since it’s a bit more accessible. But then you can switch it up.
There’s a trance technique I use, I call it the Trance Hammer where I have the whole group singing a note/tone, and then I sing something more complicated over that. (That article also now contains a video of the technique.) In that scenario, you only need one strong singer to handle the melody, the rest can handle the tone. This adds texture, and it’s also a trance technique called “confusion technique.” It works because your brain is trying to process two separate things–the toning, and the other song–and it sends you into a deeper subconscious state.
Once your group is comfortable with the idea of singing in ritual and willing to do that, you can try more complicated chants, or add in drumming. And sometimes it’ll work and sometimes you’ll fumble, but that’s the advantage of working with a smaller group; you get to try things out without screwing up a big public ritual.
Advanced Personal/Professional Practice
As part of my own personal practice that crosses over into professional-ritualist-practice, here’s something I do regularly. I practice singing songs/melodies that I’m going to use for sung trances like the cantillation/Trance Hammer technique I mention above. Here’s how I do it.
I’ll play a song that has a melody in harmony with what I’m singing, but with different words. (Here’s the song I use for this most frequently.) I practice singing over that and not getting distracted by the other words; in fact, I try to keep an ear open for the song that’s playing so that I can sing certain words at the same time, or certain notes at the same time. And, I do all that while I’m doing a third task that requires me to pay attention to basic logistics. It could be anything like folding paper or looking up directions on Google maps, just something kinesthetic that takes my attention. In my case, I might practice this technique while painting gold borderwork on one of my art pieces or gluing tissue paper to cardboard.
Sounds complicated? It is. But, it has to be.
I’m training my brain to know that song even in the midst of chaos, in the midst of a really complicated task, and in the midst of competing music. I’m training myself to be able to not just memorize that song, but memorize it in a way that distractions at a festival, or logistical issues with a ritual, won’t make me lose what I’m supposed to be singing. I’ve memorized the melodies and words in a way that I can sing it even when dealing simultaneously with complicated ritual logistics, or people whispering a question into my ear about their cue for the next ritual part. I can even communicate with others by nodding or offering hand signs while I’m still singing and not lose my place.
And the side benefit is that when I practice this technique at home, I get myself into a trance state and it’s part of my own personal spiritual work.